With one sweeping right hook, China “The Dragon” Smith went crashing through the ropes, much like his undefeated record.What had seemed like a very unlikely scenario only hours earlier became reality Friday night as Smith, the 23-year-old Sarasota native, was pummeled by Saul Montana, losing his National Boxing Association Heavyweight championship on a seventh-round TKO.
“You know if you play sports that for every event there’s a winner and a loser,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it could happen to me, but, you know what, it happened. I made some careless mistakes, but I’m a young, competitive warrior … No question, I’d fight him tomorrow.”
Sporting a 23-0 record with 22 knockouts entering the matchup, Smith, who lives and trains in Tampa, seemed like a prohibitive favorite, especially as the 3,100 fans who filled the Sun Dome chanted, “China, China.”
However, right from the opening bell, something seemed amiss. The 31-year-old Montana refused to follow the script, coming out with a flurry. He landed multiple punches flush on The Dragon’s cheek, alerting everyone that this might not be as easy as most of Smith’s fights.
“China Smith learned an awesome lesson on this stage up the ladder,” Smith’s trainer Henry Grooms said. “All of the great fighters have tasted defeat. This young man tasted defeat tonight but tasted it gallantly. He didn’t lay down, and he continued to try and try. This was a learning process.”
Montana continued to pound on Smith in the second round, pushing the champion into the corner. But The Dragon absorbed Montana’s shots and managed to respond with some of his own.
The fight looked dire in the third as Montana connected with a right hook and then another. The Dragon started to get a glazed look in his eye as Saul “The Cobra” Montana proceeded to pour on the onslaught, with a straight right that looked to put Smith down, but he was saved by the bell.
But the fourth round bell seemed to rejuvenate Smith, and he showed no ill effects from three rounds of punches. Smith unleashed a vicious right uppercut, and the southpaw followed up with an equally punishing left hand, which appeared to dizzy Montana. The Dragon was unrelenting in the fourth, repeatedly sticking Montana with rights as the end apparently approached for The Cobra. Montana escaped the fourth, and a jubilant Smith let out a raucous yell as he returned to his corner. Unfortunately that wouldn’t even be a memory for Smith as Montana’s barrage of punches left The Dragon’s comeback nothing more than a blip on the radar screen.
But the outlook was good for Smith entering the fifth with the partisan crowd chanting his name. Montana, a native of Mexico City who entered the fight with a 35-11 mark with 31 knockouts, continued to sustain blows. Montana slipped at one point in the round, and fatigue combined with Smith’s power at times made it look as if Montana was almost out on his feet.
“Montana didn’t come here to cooperate,” Grooms said. “If he had we would have been able to do everything that we wanted to do to him … This is not a game of cooperation. He nearly escaped. We had him, no question about it … Had we continued to roll punches and run combinations, it would have been the end of the day for him and a successful victory for us.”
The two beleaguered fighters opened the sixth with pounding glove-to-glove exchange. Both proceeded to trade lefts in the ropes, but the round concluded with the end in sight. Smith stumbled around the ring at one point, returning to his corner with noticeably swollen right eye. Every shot from Montana sent drops of blood and sweat cascading from his brow, almost like a signal that the end was near for Smith.
The seventh round was all Montana as a pair of rights sent Smith stumbling across the ring, resulting in a standing eight count. Smith stayed on his feet, but that only led to more punishment for the young fighter. The Cobra landed a right uppercut and then a right cross followed by the coup de grace. The sweeping right was more than Smith could handle as he caught himself on the ring ropes, or otherwise Montana would have knocked him clear out of the ring. The referee immediately ran in to stop the fight and put an end to Smith’s undefeated record and NBA title reign.
“We know that Ray Robinson lost to Holly Mims, and Ray Robinson became a great fighter,” Grooms said. “We know that Floyd Patterson got off the floor with Ingermarr Johansen to become a great heavyweight. We know that Sugar Ray Leonard got beat by Tommy Hearns … All of these gentlemen have suffered defeat. They’ve all been where China’s been tonight.”With still two more fights left in the Bay area, Tampa fans can guarantee that they haven’t seen the last of China “The Dragon” Smith.
“Me being as young as I am, (I ‘m) just going back to the drawing board and establishing myself,” Smith said. “I can’t wait to get back in the gym and correct my mistakes. Because he didn’t beat me, I beat myself … I didn’t follow the gameplan, and I paid for it.”
Contact Anthony Gagliano at email@example.com